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Hilary Putnam

Hilary Putnam a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is the author of Mathematics, Matter and Mind and Mind, Language and Reality. His new book, Reason, Truth and History, will be reviewed in a later issue of this journal.

What-it’s-like-ness

Hilary Putnam, 8 February 1996

Every so often one encounters a book with which one disagrees, wholly or in large part, but which one regards as a genuine contribution to philosophy precisely because it sets out views with which one disagrees, and does so with exemplary clarity and sophistication. For me, Galen Strawson’s Mental Reality is such a book, and any contemporary course of lectures on the philosophy of mind would be well advised to discuss it: the issues it deals with are important ones, and what Strawson has to say about them is original.

Misling

Hilary Putnam, 21 April 1988

The Harvard University Press asked ‘the most distinguished and influential of living philosophers’ (Strawson’s description of Quine, on the dust-jacket) to produce a collection of loosely-connected essays on topics of his choice in a format inspired by Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary – and the result is a remarkable addition to English literature. Quine is not only a great philosopher, but also a master of the English language and a genuine polymath; and the ‘dictionary’ format – more than eighty articles ranging from A (Alphabet) to Z (Zero), and including entries on Belief, Communication, Free Will, Idiotisms, Longitude and Latitude, Marks, Prizes, Latin Pronunciation, Tolerance and Trinity – gives him ample opportunity to write (and, he tells us in the Preface, to have ‘more than half the fun’) about ‘lowlier themes’ than philosophy (which occupies less than half the book). Apart from philosophy, the subjects most fully represented in the book are mathematics, logic and language (including English etymologies, stylistics, and the philology of the Romance languages), but there are also many short essays in which Quine pokes fun or grumbles good-naturedly about various pet peeves. (The essays on Artificial Languages, Extravagance, Mathematosis, Usage and Abuses are wonderful examples.) Perhaps the most charmingly lighthearted essay in the book is the one titled ‘Misling’. Many people have been misled to pronounce ‘misled’ as ‘mizzled’. ‘But the verb misle that is born of that misconception is too pat to pass up, descriptive as it is of the very circumstance that engendered it,’ Quine tells us. ‘Perhaps we can press it into service as a mild word for the restrained sort of deception, not quite actionable as fraud even in Ralph Nader’s day, that has a respected place in enlightened modern merchandising.’ Although Quine steers clear of political themes for the most part, there is one beautifully formulated statement of his conservative creed – the essay on Freedom. An added charm is the not quite self-deprecating humour exhibited by some of the best remarks in the book, as when Quine writes (in the essay on Communication):’

Liberation Philosophy

Hilary Putnam, 20 March 1986

This volume is advertised as ‘confronting the current debate between philosophy and its history’. What it turns out to contain is a series of lectures with the general title ‘Philosophy in History’ which were delivered at Johns Hopkins University during 1982-3, aided by a subvention from the enlightened Exxon Education Foundation. All the papers are of interest, some of major interest; the prospective reader should, however, be warned that this is not a book but a series of lectures, and that the level of sophistication required of the reader varies greatly from lecture to lecture.

Guilty Statements

Hilary Putnam, 3 May 1984

Ian Hacking has written an interesting, confusing, fast-reading, slow-digesting, exasperating, idiosyncratic book which is must reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of science. The introduction is alarming indeed. After describing Feyerabend’s position (‘There are many rationalities, many styles of reason, and also many good modes of life where nothing worth calling reason matters very much’), Hacking adds: ‘My own attitude to rationality is too much like that of Feyerabend to discuss it further.’ Fortunately, this professed deconstructionism turns out to be so much hype: Hacking thinks well of both Feyeraband and Austin, but it’s on Austin’s side that he finds himself when the chips are down. In any case, as he himself tells us, ‘what follows is about scientific realism, not rationality.’

A Technical Philosopher

Hilary Putnam, 19 May 1983

Gareth Evans died of cancer when he was barely 34 years of age. He had been working on this book for several years; the task of completing it from his notes was carried out by John McDowell. (The first two chapters and the introduction were rewritten by Evans himself in the last months of his life.) Evans’s death at such an early age is a tragedy. We can have no real idea what his mature years might have brought forth, and this book is no substitute for those additional years of life and thought: it is the desperate attempt of a young man on his deathbed to leave a lasting mark on his profession. I do not like – in fact I hate – to say that he did not (in my opinion) succeed. And I apologise to those who will feel personally hurt at a negative review of a work produced by a vital person whom they knew and loved and miss today.–

Machines with a Point of View

Hilary Putnam, 4 February 1982

Margaret Boden’s somewhat breathless book sings the praises of the new ‘computational’ models in psychology and of what she rightly calls ‘the computational metaphor’. A feature of her writing is the making of (what seem to be) strong claims followed or prefaced by judicious disclaimers. When she is functioning in what I am tempted to call her disclaimer mode, she warns us against various kinds of intellectual ‘imperialism’ that AI people engage in at times (‘AI’ is the acronym for Artificial Intelligence – computer simulation of ‘intelligent’ behaviour), urges a Popperian stance of trying to falsify strong claims, and even denies that computers could in principle be conscious or have intentional states (in a non-metaphorical sense). But when she is functioning in her selling mode we get claims like this: ‘We now have machines with a point of view of their own, machines with a subjective model (representation) of the world and their own actions in it by means of which they deliberate more or less carefully about what they should do and what they should not have done and why. The insidiously dehumanising effects of mechanism can thus be counteracted in a scientifically acceptable manner. By providing a richer image of machines that suggests how it is that subjectivity, purpose and freedom can characterise parts of the material world, current science helps us to understand how human values can be embodied in a mechanistic universe.’

Letter

Misrepresenting

2 December 1993

Colin McGinn’s review of Renewing Philosophy (LRB, 2 December 1993) is in content not a book review, but a polemic, and as such requires a response. It is a major misrepresentation that I attack all of analytic philosophy (let alone all of philosophy) as being ‘scientistic’, as McGinn suggests. McGinn asks a rhetorical question: ‘Does he believe that traditional ontology and...
Letter
SIR: John McDowell’s (Letters, 7 July) and Julia Jack’s (Letters, 21 July) comments on my review of Varieties of Reference by Gareth Evans raise important issues. Before speaking to these, let me first say something about McDowell’s more lively accusations. I am accused of ‘not understanding’ the ‘point’ of Evans’s theoretical construction and of ‘withholding...

C’est mon métier

Jerry Fodor, 24 January 2013

It would take at least two workaday philosophers to keep up with Hilary Putnam. Philosophy in an Age of Science is a case in point. It’s a collection of papers, most of them previously...

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A Science of Tuesdays

Jerry Fodor, 20 July 2000

Hilary Putnam’s latest book collects two series of his lectures with two chapters of ‘afterwords’. Subsidiary topics go by faster than my eye was able to follow, but the main...

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In and out of the mind

Colin McGinn, 2 December 1993

In a neglected passage in The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell unapologetically writes: A priori knowledge is not all of the logical kind we have been hitherto considering. Perhaps the...

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Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science

Bernard Williams, 7 February 1991

There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche’s Daybreak, about the ageing philosopher. ‘Subject to the illusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, he passes judgment on the work and...

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Putnam’s Change of Mind

Ian Hacking, 4 May 1989

Big issues and little issues: among established working philosophers there is none more gifted at making us think anew about both than Hilary Putnam. His latest book is motivated by large...

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Life at the end of inquiry

Richard Rorty, 2 August 1984

In theory, it is the highest virtue of the philosopher to be constantly receptive to criticism, always willing to abandon his own views upon hearing a better argument. In practice, students tend...

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Microcosm and Macrocosm

David Pears, 3 June 1982

There is an odd experience that Plato may have had. If light filters into a room through a small enough aperture, anything moving on the street outside will cast its shadow on the ceiling and...

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